Monday, September 15, 2008

Styron's Latest

What is it about William Styron that makes me dislike him so? I certainly haven’t read enough of his work to build up a good, healthy, invigorating hate of the man as a writer. In fact, aside from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness I haven’t read him at all. I’ve managed to avoid his two most successful novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice (although I did see the movie version of the latter) and I have no doubt that if I go to my grave never having read either of them my life will not have been diminished one jot.

However, it was while reading Havanas in Camelot, a posthumous collection of Styron’s essays, that I finally understood exactly why I find him so unappealing. The insight came while reading “A Case of the Great Pox”, Styron’s account of the treatment he received after contracting a dose of syphilis while serving in the Marines during WWII. He’s sent off to the naval hospital on Parris Island and put under the care of the stern and judgmental Dr. B. Klotz. The protocol for venereal disease patients in the 1940s is chilling to modern ears. They were put in their own separate ward. Their robes were marked with a large, yellow V. The mess hall and the bathrooms had specially designated tables or toilets for them to use. When allowed to attend movies at the base, they are cordoned off from the other men behind a yellow ribbon. Even worse were the meetings with the vindictive Dr. Klotz who never misses an opportunity to fill Styron with despair and guilt. As the days pass and his test results keep showing high levels of spirochetes in his blood Styron gives in to “self-lacerating reveries”:

Days passed in a kind of suspended monotony of fear. Meanwhile, the weight of hopelessness, bearing down on my shoulders with almost tactile gravity – I thought of a yoke in the animal, burdened-down sense – had become a daily presence; I felt a suffocating discomfort in my brain. Sitting on a camp stool next to my bed, remote from the other marines, I began to withdraw into the cocoon of myself.
When his gums start bleeding the dentist at the base diagnoses him with Vincent’s disease, a type of trench mouth. Styron starts swabbing his gums with gentian violet and the disease goes away. And so too does the syphilis. It turns out that Vincent’s disease is caused by a different spirochete, one which, in rare cases, can appear in blood tests as a false positive for syphilis. Klotz had ignored that possibility and it was only when he went on leave and his replacement, a genial Southerner named Moss, ran the appropriate tests that the truth is discovered. He never had syphilis. Styron complains to Moss about Klotz: “What this means is that Dr. Klotz could have told me there was a possibility of a false positive. A possibility. But he didn’t do that…He could have spared me a lot of misery. He could have given me some hope.” Moss replies “He was punishin’ you, boy, punishin’ you.”

Now, what annoys me in this whole incident is that Styron never gets mad at Klotz. Where’s his anger? He get abused by this odious little man and his main response is depression and despair. Reading this essay I kept wanting to cry out, “God dammit, Bill, get mad! Get pissed off! Stand up for yourself!” Imagine how Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski or Gore Vidal or Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller would have treated this incident. They certainly wouldn’t have compared themselves to burdened-down animals. In the end, one either likes the personality of the author or one doesn’t and, despite all his talent and accomplishments, I doubt I will ever warm to Styron’s emotional passivity.

Still, if you’re a fan of Styron’s you’ll like this book. The essays are all of a personal nature. He smokes cigars (the “havanas” of the title) with Jack Kennedy. He attends Francoise Mitterand’s inauguration. He writes of his friendship with Truman Capote and James Baldwin. He travels cross-country with Terry Southern. Short pieces deal with censorship, movies, and his family’s slave-owning past. He’s dismissive of the list of the 100 best English-language books compiled by the Modern Library, even though he contributed to it. “I was a little shocked at what the ten of us had wrought, not only in respect to the list’s glaring omissions…but in respect to its generally oppressive stodginess.”

And to end on a note of praise, let me say that his description of first reading Truman Capote is spot-on:

The first story of his that I read was, I believe, published in Mademoiselle. After I finished it, I remember feeling stupefied by the talent in those pages. I thought myself a pretty good hand with words for a young fellow, but here was a writer whose gifts took my breath away. Here was an artist of my age who could make words dance and sing, change color mysteriously, perform feats of magic, provoke laughter, send a chill up the back, touch the heart – a full-fledged master of the language before he was old enough to vote.

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